Education

New Jersey Officials Seize Control Of ‘Bankrupt’ Paterson Schools

By Jonathan Weisman — September 04, 1991 2 min read
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Acting for the second time under the state’s pioneering “academic bankruptcy” law, the New Jersey Education Department has seized control of the Paterson district, the state’s third-largest school system.

As a result of the action last month, the superintendent of the 24,500-student district was immediately fired, the school beard was disbanded, and the district’s top administrators were demoted.

To replace Frank Napier Jr. as superintendent, state officials selected Laval S. Wilson, who previously served a controversial term as head of the Boston schools, and gave him sweeping powers to turn the beleaguered Paterson schools around.

The state-operated administration, with an appointed beard, will be in effect for at least five years, or until the district can achieve state certification. Paterson has failed to meet minimum state education standards since 1976.

Mr. Wilson, who last year was fired by a divided Boston School Committee, promptly set about reorganizing the district, a process that by law he must complete within six months.

Mr. Wilson and state officials last month launched a talent search to fill about 100 teacher vacancies that had gone unnoticed by the previous administration, which Commissioner of Education John Ellis has characterized as hopelessly inept. (‘See Education Week, April 24, 1991 .)

In October 1989, the state assumed control of the Jersey City district. Unlike the Jersey City takeover, however, New Jersey officials assumed control of Paterson without a lengthy or costly court battle. The Paterson school beard initially attempted to resist the takeover, but subsequently acquiesced under intense pressure from state and city officials.

‘Inferior Principals’ Targeted

Mr. Wilson and Mr. Ellis have set out to allay community fears that the disbanding of the elected school board would disenfranchise and alienate Paterson parents.

Mr. Ellis last month called on community members to apply for seats on the 15-member advisory panel that will replace the disbanded school board. The commissioner will appoint 13 members of the beard this month, with the remaining 2 to be named by city officials.

Mr. Wilson appointed at least one parent to each of the 25 search panels that will look for new teachers, principals, and administrators, and met in mid-August with a group of parents from the district’s 34 schools.

In an interview, the new superintendent said that the district’s mathematics and literacy programs, which he described as “atrocious,” would be his first priority.

Under state law, Mr. Wilson will have one year to review the performances of all the district’s principals and decide which to replace.

“We will remove inferior principals,” he said. “I don’t want to sound mean, but it is my responsibility to provide the best possible education for the children of Paterson.”

State officials admitted that they have been questioned about the circumstances in which Mr. Wilson left the Boston superintendency. The Boston School Committee majority that ousted Mr. Wilson cited his alleged failure to build alliances with parents and teachers.

New Jersey officials, however, hailed Mr. Wilson’s conflicts in Boston as a sign of his willingness to stand up to school-board politics.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1991 edition of Education Week as New Jersey Officials Seize Control Of ‘Bankrupt’ Paterson Schools

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